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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

This week, we're focusing on people living smack-dab in the middle of the middle-class. The government says median household income is $49,777.

But as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, that $49,000 goes a lot further in some parts of the country than others.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Last year, Jada Irwin lived in St. Louis and made a lot less, just $37,000, and yet...

LOUISE KELLY: I could take a trip, go to Atlanta or New York for the weekend, and afford to shop while I was there. Or, you know, if somebody came into town unexpectedly, I could afford to take them out for a nice dinner without wondering, okay, what bill am I going to have to pay late?

LUDDEN: Then, Irwin lost her job in budget cutbacks, and decided to move to Washington, D.C. She knew it would be more expensive, but it offers more work in her field, communications.

LOUISE KELLY: Welcome to my humble home.

LUDDEN: Irwin works for an advocacy group for abused children and now makes $47,500, just under the national medium. An apartment close to her job in D.C. was beyond her budget, but she was happy to find a good deal just over the city line in Silver Spring, Maryland. Her rent is 1,100 a month.

LOUISE KELLY: And my guest room is just fully equipped with this air mattress here.

LUDDEN: The second bedroom lets family visit. But if need be, Irwin figures she could get a roommate to share expenses.

LUDDEN: In her galley kitchen, Irwin cooks up fish, rice and broccoli for dinner. She says she'd love to go out for a decent meal once a week, though can only afford it once a month. But Irwin insists she's not high maintenance - she can bargain shop with the best of them. Yet, does this feel like middle income?

LOUISE KELLY: I think it's crazy. I think that middle income - to me, here - would be 80, $90,000 a year. That's what I think a person would probably have to make in order to live comfortably, especially if you have a family and other people to take care of.

LUDDEN: And in fact, this region's median income is closer to that. Irwin is 33, well into adulthood.

LOUISE KELLY: I definitely feel like I should be more advanced than I am. I have friends that are, you know, head and shoulders above where I'm at, financially and professionally, in their careers.

LUDDEN: But it took her a few years to feel ready for college. After first going to community college, Irwin finally graduated from the University of Missouri in 2003.

She grabs her laptop to show me her student loans. She says her middle-class parents made clear not going to college was not an option. But they'd saved nowhere near enough to pay for it.

LOUISE KELLY: My mother also took out a loan my first year of college, so she helped with a loan on her end.

LUDDEN: And Irwin racked up three student loans of her own. She's been sending regular checks for seven years now, and feels certain she must have made a dent. So she looks a little stunned when she finally logs on to the student loan website.

LOUISE KELLY: Wow. Is that how that works?

LUDDEN: She hasn't even paid down the interest.

LOUISE KELLY: So my original loan amount was 32,000. And the amount that I currently owe is 34,000.

LUDDEN: So how long do you think it's gonna take you to pay?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: I'm probably going to be dead and gone before this balance is paid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LUDDEN: That depressing thought aside, she still thinks she's better off with a college degree. But she's hardly living the American Dream. Irwin says she pays close attention to economic news these days. She believes belt-tightening is the new American norm. And yet, at a time of so much misery, Irwin feels blessed to have work she loves.

LOUISE KELLY: I'm more hopeful - and this might sound kind of selfish - I'm more hopeful that I'll be all right than that the economic system as a whole is going to start working great for everybody, to tell you the truth. I always seem to walk between the raindrops.

LUDDEN: Jada Irwin's doing okay in the economic middle, but she still looks forward to the day she can walk into a store on a humbug - as she puts it - see something she likes, and buy it.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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